There is no defensive play more valuable than the strikeout. It can kill rallies, stymie runs and deflate an opposing team. This season, we've seen the emergence of two pitchers who through a combination of filthy “stuff” and intuitive pitch selection have established themselves as the true Kings of the K.
The Whirling Darvish
If you were to biologically engineer the perfect strikeout pitcher in a lab, it would probably resemble Yu Darvish to a tee – flawless mechanics, good velocity on his fastball and startling arsenal of pitches to work with.
His prowess on the mound has placed the 27-year-old, Japanese-born hurler atop to the league in Ks (240), and has brought him five 14 strikeout bids. The only other pitchers to do that in one season? Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Sam McDowell and Pedro Martinez. Not bad company.
Darvish sports an astounding nine-pitch cornucopia of pitches to work with (4-seam fastball, 2-seam fastball, cutter, curveball – with fast and slow iterations, slider, forkball, splitter, and changeup) while also possessing the ability to change speeds at will.
According to Fangraphs, Darvish's fastball has topped out at 97.7 mph, and has gone as low as 85 mph. The change in speed is done on purpose, to keep fastball hitters off-balance and prevent them from sitting on the pitch when he gets behind in a count.
Darvish's best work, however, is done when he can unleash his off-speed pitches while ahead in the count. Take last week's victimization of Trevor Plouffe, for instance. Plouffe was shown a 95 mph fastball with an 0-1 count before Darvish whipped out an almost cartoon-like 61 mph curveball to get the strikeout. It's also, incidentally, one of the GIFiest swing-and-misses of all-time.
The graph above, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, chronicles the speed variation that Darvish used during the August 30th 3-2 loss to the Twins.
The largest pitch-to-pitch variation is what happened to poor Mr. Plouffe, but you can see many other instances where Darvish dials up a fastball to the mid-90s only to pull the string on the next pitch with one of his breaking or off-speed pitches. He struck out 11 batters in 6.2 innings this particular game, and had a no-hit bid going before a Justin Morneau homer in the seventh.
Darvish's slider is arguably his most lethal put away pitch, causing a domineering 36.75% whiff rate and sporting the league's highest horizontal movement rate per Baseball Prospectus. Batters are also hitting a ridiculous .140 against Darvish when he opts to throw the slider.
Yu's massive pitch variation and back-breaking movement, makes it that much more difficult for the batter to predict what is coming at them, and has resulted in a league-best 31.61% whiff rate. Strikeout king indeed.
Getting out of Trouble
Two weeks ago, Darvish took some heat from Rangers broadcaster Eric Nadel for not having the “killer instinct” an ace needs to get out of high-leverage situations. This actually turns out to be a sweeping (and incorrect) generalization.
Part of Darvish's effectiveness stems from his ability to punch his way out of sticky situations. According to FanGraphs, hitters are batting a paltry .179 against Darvish when the bases are empty and an even more impressive .130 when there are runners in scoring position.
Darvish's BAA does increase to .213 with runners on base (but not in scoring position), but this likely has to do with him pitching around certain batters and Darvish's slight control issues.
When runs are looming on second and third, Darvish is nearly unhittable. He also excels at damage control, allowing a .173 avg and .591 OPS with the lead and .159 /.490 while his team is behind.
Room to Grow
Perhaps what is most terrifying about Darvish is his youth. The Japanese hurler's stuff is so good that he's in Cy Young considerations despite being in the top-17 for allowed home runs per nine innings.
He also sometimes struggles with control, walking a relatively high 3.31 batters per nine innings. These are things that should improve as Darvish gets more experience in America and as he matures into his 30s.
Could the most dominating pitcher in baseball get better?
All He Does is Win Win Win, No Matter What
Max Scherzer has always been a solid major league pitcher. He previously exhibited good stuff, solid peripherals and the only real knock against him was his control.
However, few could have predicted would be the best pitcher on his own team, let alone the winningest pitcher in the league. Wins, of course, have lost value in the eyes of most baseball analysts, but whenever a pitcher approaches 20 wins in a season, you know he's nothing to scoff at.
The Perfect Storm
Scherzer does not have the array of weapons that Darvish has, but he's still been a strikeout machine. This is nothing new. Despite his past lack of control (career 3BB/9IP), Scherzer has always posted gaudy strikeout numbers, last year putting up 11.1 over nine innings with a 3.85 K/BB number. The change this season has been Scherzer's ability to control his pitches, he's cut down the walks from 2.9 BB/9 to 2.2 and he's seen his ERA drop to a robust 2.88 as a result.
Before this season, Scherzer had predominantly been using an effective trio of a four-seamer (high-90s), slider and change-up. The slider was used as an off-speed pitch against right-handed batters while the change-up was used as a put-away pitch against lefties. This year, however, Scherzer upgraded his arsenal with a curveball, and an effective one at that.
He began to experiment with the pitch last year, but it wasn't until MLB.com blew the whistle that his new weapon became common knowledge. 2013 has seen Scherzer phase the curve into his game more often, with Brooks Baseball estimating that he's used it roughly 8% of the time this season.
It's still used somewhat sparingly, but when Scherzer does break out the curveball, batters have struggled to put the ball in play (a mere 8.90% BIP rate).
The newly mastered curve, in conjunction with a fastball that has some ridiculous vertical movement, a slider that's logging over a 23% whiff rate and a changeup to keep batters off balance, has made Scherzer one of the most dominating right handers in baseball.
Scherzer has transformed into an ace. He sports a filthy, and now deep, array of pitches and has exhibited the ability to locate fastball much more consistently.
Scherzer may not lead the league in any particular stat, but he's mowed down the second-most batters, is in the top three in BB+H/9 and is in the top seven for ERA.
Value of wins aside, it's hard to argue against his Cy Young consideration this season, and his title as a strikeout king is even more indisputable.